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Stewart starts the Chase with first win of 2011

Tony Stewart has been lamenting his poor form for the last few months, but it seems all he needed was a little injection of Chase fever - plus some help from fuel conservation strategies.
Tony Stewart has not been having the best of seasons, and only scraped into the Chase at all in the final race at Richmond. But if he and his fans were despairing of Smoke being able to make any impression in the post-season shoot-out, those doubts were dramatically swept away when his first victory of 2011 coincided with this first round of the Chase.

After the drama of Sunday's washout, it seemed that the race itself was going to be a rather business-like affair. But it turned out to be a race with a tense last few laps of fuel-conservation that dramatically claimed some big Chase names before the chequered flag came out.

Following the long overnight wait, Matt Kenseth finally led the field to the green flag at the start of the Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway at 11.13am local time on Monday morning. He led Kurt Busch and the field throughout the first 30 laps until the pre-scheduled competition caution to allow teams to check out the state of the cars on the washed-clean surface of the 1.5-mile tri-oval.

Kyle Busch gambled on taking only two tyres under the caution and emerged in the lead, but it was brother Kurt who had the genuine form at this early stage and who quickly pulled out a big lead over Greg Biffle as the #18 started to slip back on its older rubber.

A yellow flag on lap 70 for debris put an end to the 2.6s lead that Kurt had built up. The #22 got the best of the four-tyre pit stops and retained the lead for the restart ahead of Biffle, Kenseth, Menard, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman and Kyle Busch. Once again, Kurt shot out ahead of his rivals in no time flat, while further back it was a great restart for Kevin Harvick who had been trailing back in 16th but who jumped up to tenth in just a few laps after the track went green.

Jimmie Johnson was also flying and up to third, but things were not looking so good for Denny Hamlin who had to head onto pit road under the green flag complaining of vibration and needing a new set of tyres, and who dropped to 37th - hardly the start he wanted to the post-season after squeezing into the Chase on the final wildcard, especially with the top eight runners at this point of the race consisting of his Chase rivals.

Greg Biffle had previously been up there in the top ten, but he was forced to drop back with an unscheduled pit stop of his own. "We didn't figure out what it is yet, something fell off," said Biffle when asked what had happened. "It definitely hurt our chances today though. Fuel mileage was something, but we were handicapped ... We had more problems today than fuel mileage."

Kurt Busch's impressive reign in front was finally ended by Carl Edwards on lap 104, who swiftly pulled out a 0.7s lead as green flag pit stops loomed. Jeff Gordon was the first, making a slightly premature stop on lap 108 for an apparent problem with his right front tyre and ending up a lap down, before others started to stream in shortly afterwards.

Carl Edwards continued to lead after his stop, ahead of Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson who were fighting hard - but remarkably cleanly, given their flare-up last week at Richmond - for second place. Edwards opened up a 3s lead at one point during his part of the race, until Johnson finally won the battle for second position and started to close up on the leader. Finally the matter became academic when a caution came out for debris on the backstretch on lap 145

by Andrew Lewin



Related Pictures

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The #14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet driven by Tony Stewart crosses the finish line to win the GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 19 in Joliet, Ill. [Photo Credit: Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR]
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy John`s Chevrolet, pits along with the rest of the field during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on August 31, 2014 in Hampton, Georgia.  (Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy John`s Chevrolet, and Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Panasonic Chevrolet, lead a pack of cars during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on August 31, 2014 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kasey Kahne, driver of the #5 Farmer`s Insurance Chevrolet SS, is congratulated by his Hendrik Motor Sports teammates Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Panasonic Toughbook Chevrolet SS (left), Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe’s/Kobalt Tools Chevrolet SS (center) and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 National Guard Chevrolet SS (right) after his victory Sunday, August 31, 2014 in the Nascar Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Georgia. With this win, Kahne joins Gordon, Johnson, and Earnhardt Jr. in the Chase. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Ryan Blaney, driver of the #29 Cooper Standard Ford, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Silverado 250 at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park on August 31, 2014 in Bowmanville, Canada. (Photo Credit: Jeff Zelevansky/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Ryan Blaney, driver of the #29 Cooper Standard Ford, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Chevrolet Silverado 250 on August 31, 2014 in Bowmanville, Ontario, Canada. (Photo Credit: Rainier Ehrhardt/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Ryan Blaney, driver of the #29 Cooper Standard Ford, and German Quiroga, driver of the #77 OtterBox Toyota, take the chequered flag during the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Chevrolet Silverado 250 on August 31, 2014 in Bowmanville, Ontario, Canada. (Photo Credit: Rainier Ehrhardt/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Ryan Blaney, driver of the #29 Cooper Standard Ford, races during the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Chevrolet Silverado 250 on August 31, 2014 in Bowmanville, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo Credit: Rainier Ehrhardt/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #5 Bad Boy Buggies Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Nationwide Series Great Clips 300 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on August 30, 2014 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo Credit: Jeff Curry/Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #5 Bad Boy Buggies Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Nationwide Series Great Clips 300 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on August 30, 2014 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo Credit: Jeff Curry/Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #5 Bad Boy Buggies Chevrolet, crosses the finish line to win the NASCAR Nationwide Series Great Clips 300 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on August 30, 2014 in Hampton, Georgia.  (Photo Credit: Todd Warshaw/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #5 Bad Boy Buggies Chevrolet, celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR Nationwide Series Great Clips 300 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on August 30, 2014 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo Credit: Todd Warshaw/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #5 Bad Boy Buggies Chevrolet, races Chris Buescher, driver of the #60 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Ford, during the NASCAR Nationwide Series Great Clips 300 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on August 30, 2014 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo Credit: Jeff Curry/Getty Images)
Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 National Guard Chevrolet, practices for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on August 30, 2014 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo Credit: Nick Laham/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS, qualified for twelfth position Friday, August 29, 2014 for Sunday`s Nascar Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Georgia. After a three-race absence, Tony Stewart has returned to the track at Atlanta. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Ryan Newman, driver of the #31 Caterpillar Chevrolet SS, qualified for fourth position Friday, August 29, 2014 for Sunday`s Nascar Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Georgia. Newman is 9th in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy John’s Chevrolet SS, won the Pole position Friday, August 29, 2014 for Sunday`s Nascar Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Georgia. It was Harvick`s sixth pole win of the 2014 season. He is 7th in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy John`s Chevrolet, practices for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on August 29, 2014 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo Credit: Todd Warshaw/NASCAR via Getty Images)

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